The abrupt decision by the Black Caps to suspend a much-anticipated tour has fanned conspiracies. But Islamabad will do better by ensuring future home games do not go the same route.
It felt like déjà vu Friday afternoon when New Zealand dropped a bombshell by deciding to abort its cricket tour of Pakistan even before the first ball was bowled.
In the summer of 2002, New Zealand abruptly flew out of Pakistan after a bomb blast left several dead near the hotel where the visiting team was staying in Karachi.
It took the Black Caps more than 18 years to return to Pakistan. However, this time there was no untoward incident but an undisclosed security threat, which was enough for them to cancel the tour.
It was a shockingly sad end to a tour that had raised so much hope in this cricket-mad but cricket-starved nation.
The sad part is that Pakistan’s players and tens of millions of fans were eagerly looking forward to a rare series against New Zealand, currently a top-flight team, on home soil.
More worryingly, New Zealand’s unilateral decision to cancel the series just hours before the start of the opening game in Rawalpindi has dealt a lethal blow to a Pakistani campaign that is aimed at bringing back international cricket to the country.
“It’s really disappointing,” Zaheer Abbas, the former Pakistan Test captain, told TRT World.
“(New Zealand’s) sudden withdrawal came as a huge surprise for all of us. We don’t know the exact nature of the threat but it’s a blow for Pakistan cricket,” added Zaheer, a former President of the International Cricket Council (ICC).
The game can be saved
There are now genuine fears that New Zealand’s controversial call might result in a domino effect and could leave Pakistan with little or no international activity at home for quite some time.
England, which has agreed to send its men’s and women’s cricket team to Pakistan in October this year, has already raised doubts about the tours stressing that it will be reassessing the security situation in Pakistan in the wake of New Zealand’s decision.
Zaheer hopes that better sense prevails. “Pakistan have always been there to help England in their time of need and I’m sure that they (England) will not leave stranded us at this crucial juncture,” he said, referring to last summer when Pakistan helped England save its cricketing summer by sending its national team there to play a series despite serious Covid-19 concerns.
Australia is to visit Pakistan for a much-awaited cricket series, its first in almost two decades, next year. But that series is also under a cloud.
This means that Pakistan cricket could find itself in more or less the same hopeless situation it was in the post 2009 years in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore.
Then, Pakistan was reduced to the status of a pariah in world cricket and it took several years before international cricketers began returning to Pakistan.
Things had been looking bright for Pakistan cricket before New Zealand’s decision to withdraw. In recent years, cricket teams from Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, South Africa and the West Indies have toured Pakistan.
The country’s professional T20 league – the Pakistan Super League (PSL) – has also been attracting professional stars from around the globe.
The home games against leading teams like New Zealand, England and Australia were supposed to provide a further and bigger boost to Pakistan’s plans of normalising its status as an international cricketing destination.
All such plans have taken a big, maybe, even a fatal hit following the cancellation of the New Zealand series.
Getting the pitch ready
Cricket is huge in Pakistan in every sense of the word. It’s the national pastime and perhaps the only sport left where the country is seen as a major contender for international titles.
Pakistan, who won the immensely popular T20 World Cup in England in 2009, is being counted among the favourite teams to regain the title later this year in the UAE. The home series against New Zealand was an important part of Pakistan’s homework for the forthcoming T20 World Cup.
These are the reasons why it was hardly surprising to see an angry and anguished reaction from Pakistan over New Zealand’s decision to abort their tour at the very last minute.
Former Pakistan cricket star Shoaib Akhtar’s tweet saying “NZ just killed Pakistan cricket”, and Pakistan Cricket Board’s chairman Ramiz Raja’s warning that “NZ will hear us at the ICC” aptly underline the angry and despondent mood in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s cricket chiefs are seething and with due reason. But they will need to overcome their anger in order to quickly find ways and means to ensure that future home games do not suffer the same fate.
They can take immediate remedial measures by inviting a friendlier nation like Sri Lanka to play a few matches in Pakistan as soon as possible. That would send a positive message to the rest of the cricket world besides giving the national team much-needed match practice before next month’s T20 World Cup.
At a higher level, Pakistan’s authorities will need to revisit their security plans. New Zealand is a responsible member of the international community and it is unlikely that it would have taken such an extreme step without any due reason.
However, at the moment not many people in Pakistan feel that way as a number of conspiracy theories are making the rounds.
The general feeling is that Pakistan is being made to suffer for its perceived role in Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan following the US withdrawal.
Then there are many, who blame the highly influential Indian cricket board (BCCI), the richest of all cricket boards, pointing out that it (BCCI) wanted all the attention on the upcoming season of the money-spinning Indian Premier League (IPL).
They suspect that the BCCI somehow pressured New Zealand to call off the tour. The recent statement of Sheikh Rasheed, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, in which he blames a “hidden hand” behind the series cancellation, adds weight to such suspicion.
Time will tell whether New Zealand’s authorities were justified in their decision to withdraw but what we know for sure is that its decision to pull out of Pakistan has come as a hammer blow for Pakistan cricket. And it wouldn’t be easy for it to bounce back from such a colossal setback.